Sequester Cuts Could Affect Air Safety

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At a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, FAA administrator Michael Huerta explained to lawmakers what the sequester means to the aviation industry. He said he has limited ability to avoid furloughs for key personnel, such as air traffic controllers. That could lead to delays for passengers and the closing of towers.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: This is Brian Naylor with a look at the impact of the sequester on the aviation industry. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta testified on Capitol Hill yesterday that the rules of the sequester had left him with little ability to avoid furloughing key personnel such as air traffic controllers. And that may lead to widespread delays in air travel. Republican Sam Graves of Missouri charged that the Federal Aviation Administration is pursuing a sky-is-falling strategy and could find some $600 million in cuts from its $16 billion budget without furloughs.

REPRESENTATIVE SAM GRAVES: The sky isn't falling. We aren't going to have more meteors hit because of sequestration. I don't understand why it is that the administration continues to take this attitude that the world is absolutely falling apart as a result of this.

NAYLOR: Huerta was confirmed as administrator last month, coming to the agency from private industry. He told committee members that, unlike in business, where managers can move money around, at the FAA his hands are tied as to where he can make cuts.

MICHAEL HUERTA: Under the sequester, our flexibility is very limited because we must cut proportionately from all affected accounts. We can't move money around and we have limited flexibility to choose what it is that we're able to cut.

NAYLOR: Some Republicans pointed to half a billion dollars spent on private consultants as one area that could absorb cuts, but Huerta said most of that money goes to the company that provides the telecommunications network that is the backbone of the air traffic control system. Asked about estimates that cutbacks in controllers could lead to delays of up to 90 minutes at some major airports, Huerta cited Chicago's O'Hare, one of the nation's busiest hubs. He said O'Hare has two control towers.

HUERTA: Because it runs at a very tight level of staffing, and if we need to reduce controller hours, one factor that we would need to consider is in certain weather conditions we may need to close the north tower. If we need to close the north tower, that effectively removes a runway from operation.

NAYLOR: And that could lead to delays rippling across the country. Huerta says his agency is looking at closing altogether some lightly used towers if he has to furlough controllers, and that has lawmakers from those communities worried. Democrat Nick Rahall of West Virginia expressed concern over the fate of airports in his state.

REPRESENTATIVE NICK RAHALL: Of the 200-some hit list that you issued as far as towers that may be closed around the country, there were five in my state of West Virginia. My question is, have you considered any alternatives to those towers that may be closed in rural America?

NAYLOR: Other lawmakers expressed concern for large carriers, such as FedEx and UPS, which ship cargo overnight. The FAA is warning it may close some towers at midnight to save money. Huerta says he's been meeting with passenger and cargo airlines, and all of those factors are being taken under consideration, adding it's a complicated undertaking. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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